A dangerous game | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

A dangerous game

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Recep Tayyip Erdogan

By deploying Turkish troops in the Arab world, the most dangerous man in this region, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is following the bad example of “the most dangerous man in the world,” Donald Trump. His military is deployed in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and, whether welcome or not, based at hundreds of sites in scores of countries around the world.

The Arab world is angry with Erdogan over his “military adventurism” in Iraq, is concerned over his occupation of large tracts of Syrian territory, and condemns his armed intervention in Libya. 

After years of air attacks against Turkish Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) rebels in northern Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region, Erdogan has launched Operation Claw-Eagle, Turkey’s first combined air and land offensive in Iraq. The Turkish military has selected targets stretching from Sinjar, the Yezidi area west of Mosul, to the Qandil Mountains on the eastern border with Iran. In coordination with Turkey, it has simultaneously shelled Kurdish Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan positions. Turkey also struck the refugee camp for Turkish Kurds in Makhmour, south of the regional capital Irbil and other locations.

Turkey claims its offensive is in retaliation for PKK bombings in Turkey and in the Turkish-controlled Afrin district and in other areas in northern Syria. Turkey has occupied nearly 9,000 square kilometres of Syrian territory and seeks to expand its holdings by imposing Turkish military control over Syria’s north-western Idlib province. 

Over the past few months, Ankara has dispatched tanks, armoured troop carriers, and several thousand troops into Syria, allegedly, to monitor the ceasefire agreed by Turkey and Russia. In reality Turkey is co-opting al-Qaeda and Daesh-allied Syrian affiliates and dispatching their fighters to Libya.

 Turkey›s Syrian surrogate fighters have changed the military situation on the ground in Libya although Russia has deployed war planes to prevent this from happening. The Syrian fighters, drawn from radical religious groups opposed to the Assad government, have repelled UAE, Egyptian, Russian and French backed forces under rebel General Khalifa Haftar, who is based in the east. Since last year, his army had encamped around the capital Tripoli in the west which is held by the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) although there is no “national accord” in Libya.

Haftar’s Libyan National Army has pulled back 450 kilometres eastwards to the coastal city of Sirte. But, this is not far enough for Turkey. Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has demanded the evacuation of Sirte and of al-Jufra, south of Sirte in the interior, as the price of a ceasefire. Turkey is, at least temporarily, the decision maker in Tripoli.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has countered Erdogan by ordering Egypt’s army to prepare to carry out missions both within and outside the country and warned the GNA not to send its forces beyond the Sirte-Jufra front line held by Haftar’s fighters. Sisi is clearly concerned that Erdogan will go too far. Earlier this month, Sisi called for a ceasefire and an elected leadership for Libya but this was dismissed by Erdogan.

Erdogan’s aim is to extend Turkish influence to North Africa by empowering the Muslim Brotherhood. To accomplish this goal, he has dispatched from northern Syria Daesh and al-Qaeda-linked fighters who are seen in the Arab world as a clear and present danger. Erdogan has modelled his Libyan intervention on his involvement in northern Syria — particularly in al-Qaeda-dominated Idlib.

Having lost its cross-border “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, Daesh is eager to shift its surviving forces to North Africa where they bolster local Daesh operations. Russia has responded by deploying mercenaries attached to the “Wagner Group,” creating a new proxy conflict in which Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are on opposite sides.

By flexing his military muscle in northern Iraq and in Libya, Erdogan seeks to demonstrate that Turkey is a regional power and he is a regional leader the Arabs cannot ignore. By planting a Turkish presence in Libya, Erdogan is in position to blackmail Europe in two ways. First, from Libya can control the flow of sub-Saharan African and other refugees and migrants to European shores. He has already done this with migrants gathering in Turkey with the aim of reaching Europe. Already struggling to accommodate migrants who have already arrived on their shores and hard-hit by the coronavirus, southern European countries simply cannot afford to provide for an influx of refugees sailing across the Mediterranean from Libya.

Second, Erdogan has conditioned his offer to intervene militarily in the battle for Tripoli on a GNA agreement to extend unilaterally its continental shelf across the Eastern Mediterranean to meet with that of Turkey, thus bisecting this end of the sea between Greece and the Levant, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus.

Although, the claims of Turkey and Libya to linked exclusive economic zones have not been accepted in the region and internationally, Turkey is prepared to defend these claims with gunboats. Turkey is already deploying drill ships accompanied by armed naval vessels in Cypriot territorial waters with the aim of tapping offshore gas resources. Turkey has made it clear that Ankara will obstruct the construction of the EastMed pipeline which will have to cross under the claimed Turkish-Libyan zone in order to deliver natural gas from Eastern Mediterranean countries to Greece and thence to Italy. 

Erdogan is determined to use its occupation of Libya and its naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean to blackmail the European Union into granting Ankara visa-less travel to Europe for Turks and concessions on trade.

While Erdogan attempts to crush Kurish opposition to ethnic Turkish domination and reclaim ex-Ottoman Empire domains in Syria and Libya, his country’s economy is in crisis due to depleted reserves, mounting external debts and a weak currency. His domestic approval rating slumped last year but was boosted due to his early successful handling of the coronavirus. Last week he had to admit, however, that Turkey has lost some ground in the battle against Covid-19 since relaxing lockdown and other restrictions. 

Like Trump, Erdogan is determined to stay in office whatever the price to Turks, Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans and others. And, like Trump, he is a potent source of regional instability and international discord.


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